Women and Children First

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of men too, but when it comes to development, big impact comes when women and children are targeted.

My work with the Millennium Villages Project (MVP) has shown me first hand how well women can perform, even in professions traditionally considered male dominated. The focus of my project is the Lead Farmer Project (LFP), where community based farmers are trained to educated their neighbors in better farming techniques. This initiative has helped subsistence farmers increase yields and actually having surplus crop to sell, so they can afford other necessities.

One of the main tenets of the MVP is equality for women. Gender equality was one of the Millennium Development Goals, and it remains a Sustainable Development Goal. When the LFP was being developed, local leadership was instructed to include 50% women in lead farmer selection. In Kenya, they are at 49%. In Mali, they have 4%. Overall, they are at 23%. Until I analyzed actual female participation, the assumption in the office here in New York was that all sites were holding to the 50% recommendation. I’ve got about 7 weeks left in my assignment, and finding ways to increase that percentage will be a big focus for me.

Lead farmer in Rwanda (can you see the boys peeking out?)

Lead farmer in Rwanda (can you see the boy peeking out behind the shed?)

Lead farmer in Kenya receiving new tools

Lead farmer in Kenya receiving new tools

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Lead farmers in Senegal (where only 13% are female)

Why? Other than to be “fair”? When I was in Africa this summer, I asked the lead farmers millions of questions on many topics. One thing I kept hearing was that women made better lead farmers than men. When a community had a female lead farmer they even paid back farming-related loans faster. As I toured one farm in Rwanda with a female lead farmer, her three sons quietly and shyly trailed behind us. They were proud of their mother. She cited improving her status in the community as her motivation for participating in the LFP.

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MVP has many initiatives other than farming. I was also able to visit a MVP school in Rwanda. In parts of sub-Saharan Africa, girls can miss out on up to five days of school per month or stop going to school entirely because of insufficient access to water, hygiene facilities and a lack of sanitary supplies. This school has a special building for girls in this stage of development where they learn about hygiene and receive sanitary supplies. (The photos of signs in this post are from this building). Another MVP program targets “cross-generational sex”: a pattern of sexual behavior between girls and much older men. It can bring increased health risks and consequences for girls and young women, notably HIV infection and low self-esteem. The program provides free access to sanitary supplies, sexual health education, family planning services, HIV/AIDS and STD prevention and treatment.

I’ve been involved in the Women’s Leadership Initiative (WLI ) at GSK for the past three years. I had the pleasure of attending a WLI conference earlier this month to connect with my GSK colleagues about what affects us as women in the US. Our challenges here are very different than those faced by women around the world, but are just as important. Wherever we are, committing to gender equality matters.

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